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Peter O'Donnell discusses the interest expressed by members states to host the EMA.
"Sell Bucharest; hold Stockholm; buy Amsterdam" – market recommendations for the EMA
"The EMA welcomes the interest expressed by some member states in hosting the agency," the European Medicines Agency said, artlessly, earlier this year.
This interest is now becoming an embarrassment. It is no longer just "some" member states who have expressed an interest. It is nearly all of them, and they are fighting like cats in a sack to win the prize. So widespread is the appetite to host the agency that it was news when Estonia recently stated publicly that it would not put in a bid. And the temperature is rising by the week.
At the end of July, the candidates will have to make their formal offers, and across Europe, cities, regions, and national governments are frantically putting the final touches to their offers, conscious that the competition is going to be fierce.
But that is only the start of the process. Then the real work of lobbying will start, as the discussions move from Twitter to the EU corridors of power.
Right up to the highest-level corridors, too. Until a few weeks ago, it looked as though the European Commission would run all the bids against a checklist of fairly objective criteria, and put some sort of short list in front of the member states' European affairs ministers for a decision in October. But since the summit of EU leaders in June, the game has changed. Now the leaders themselves are to get involved in the process at their next formal summit, and the decision has accordingly been pushed back to November.
This is more than a timetable change. Bringing in Europe's prime ministers and presidents elevates this from a technical exercise to a deeply political choice. And in the normal way of political processes, the advantage goes to the big and powerful, who can subordinate objectivity to their own more subjective criteria. In addition, the emphasis in the criteria has shifted heavily towards the host country being up for the task from day one, in a way that inevitably favors the richer countries. The criteria spelled out by the June summit underline the importance of having solid infrastructure in place in everything from first-rate flight connections to first-class hotels and first-quality education for EMA staff children.
So it looks like smaller countries that were boasting of the quality of their unique local character and their compliance with an older checklist will be elbowed out of the final stages of the competition by the muscle of the mighty. Compared to the attractions of established limousine services to air conditioned offices with high-speed broadband and the proximity of international schools, small sympathy may be extended to plaintive claims from newer and poorer member states that they deserve to win because until now they have not been favored with the privilege-and kudos-of harboring any of the EU's agencies.
The research-based European drug industry also said it was discomfited by the decision to delay the choice. EFPIA underscored that "medicines constitute a special case in terms of securing swift agreement on both sides, given the fact that they directly affect the health and wellbeing of citizens in both Europe and the UK."
But the postponement looks as if it might work in favor of what EFPIA wants. It has highlighted exactly the same points that the big countries are going to be arguing. "Any future location of the EMA must have world-class connectivity. This is a critical requirement, which will ensure that the agency is capable of managing and accommodating the 36,000 expert visits that it must facilitate currently on an annual basis, in addition to a great number of regulatory exchanges with the global pharmaceutical industry," says EFPIA.
"Equally important will be excellent transport links (international, regional, and local transport); a building that will allow the EMA to host the vast number of essential expert meetings it organizes annually; and a location that offers a large number of hotel rooms needed to accommodate the necessary scientific and regulatory experts who engage with the agency."
"The same attention must be given to retaining a highly competent staff component. Sufficient and adequate housing, access to international/European schools for staff with children, employment opportunities for spouses/partners are also likely to be prerequisite factors for any future location selection process."
All of that sounds very much like the modified criteria set out by EU leaders in June. So if the EMA winds up in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, or Belgium, it is difficult to imagine the drug industry complaining too much.